Help Along the Way: sleeping children and sleepy adults

[1]Looking back on it, it is not surprising that I found myself shackled to a chair outside of my three-year-old daughter’s bedroom. She was transitioning into a ‘big girl bed.” The kid was almost 10 pounds at birth and 22 inches long. Her body was big and her will, even bigger. She kept crawling out of the “big girl bed,” walking her big girl self into the kitchen and getting herself a big girl snack.

Each time I would walk her back to her room and tuck her back in. She wouldn’t cry or argue or say much of anything. She would nod her consent and then get out of bed.

We tried reading to her, laying next to her, promising her cake for breakfast, threatening snakes under her bed (not really, but I would have if I thought it would have worked, please don’t shame me, I was tired), speaking sweetly, speaking firmly.

Nothing worked, except guarding the exit. At first, I just stood in the doorway, but after two hours I needed a chair. And thus it went, night after night for three weeks. Finally she got bored and didn’t get out of her bed until she fell asleep.

At 17 years old, she’s got great sleep habits. Heads to bed around 9:30pm, reads until she’s sleepy and goes to sleep. I’m convinced that’s one of the reasons she’s so smart. (Yes, she really is.)  

Come to find out, research says kids who get enough sleep do have an advantage.

In the third lecture in the Great Courses series, Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive, Dr. Vishton explores the innate need all humans have for sleep.

Sleep is absolutely necessary for human beings. 

Sleep is restorative. Sleep is a time for our bodies to tune up. Our bodies are so wonderfully designed that they can heal tissues and cells that have been stressed or strained during awake times. Sleep can also heal our mind and our emotions. Research shows that sleep deprived people are more likely to be depressed and irritable. 

Any new parent knows that when he is sleep deprived he eats more. It is the only time in my life I actually wanted to eat baby food. With little sleep even strained peas looked appetizing. When we haven’t gotten enough sleep our bodies beg for quick calories to give us what we didn’t get from sleep-energy. It’s a sloppy band-aid and it doesn’t work in the long term, but we often use it.

Doughnuts at every Southern Baptist Church on Sunday morning are for those whose Saturday stretched into early Sunday. (And frankly, it may be the only reason I heard a sermon in my late teens and early twenties. It is also part of the reason I struggle with my weight. …sigh… darn carb-laden, sweet demons...)

Children need sleep for all of those reasons and more. Their bodies regulate growth during sleep. Their emotional stability is reset by sleep. Sleep at night and success in school is closely related.

Dr.Vishton is often asked how much sleep is enough for children. While there are charts and estimates out there he suggests that the parent become the expert on their own child.

How to be your child’s sleep expert:

·      Every child is uniquely and wonderfully made. In general sleep time is usually no less than 8 hours and no more than 11hours.

·      Keep a sleep journal, noting how much sleep your child got and their mood the next day.

·      If they are irritable, they need more sleep.

·      If they struggle to go to sleep, that doesn’t mean they need less sleep, they just may need more physical activity.


Sleep Tips (for sleepy adults and children)

·      Bedtime rituals work. Get yourself one. For all of us, routine can carry us along in forward motion when the will is weak. After a long day, we’ve got no energy left for will power. Ritual can offer a bit of help to an exhausted will.

o   Set a bed time. Research shows that the same bedtime each night communicates sleep to the body.

o   Reading is a great way to segway into sleep. Reading allows the child’s brain to settle into a calm rhythm. Paraclete Press has got some great children's books. 

o   Praying the Examen can help children to develop their own relationship with God. See this Praying the Examen video for the particulars.

·      Nix the screens an hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted by screens tells the human brain to wake up. If we are trying to go to sleep, a screen is the last thing we need to engage with. When my children were small at the end of the day, my mind was in vegetable mode and I was drawn to a little bit of vegetable entertainment. (VeggieTales.) However, I did see a marked difference when we didn’t watch any screens. I see it now in myself and in my adolescent daughters. When we watch Agents of Shield (yes, we are that kind of family) we all struggle to fall asleep that night. We haven’t given up watching; we just watch earlier.

o   Phone =I can’t sleep. The teens I meet with in spiritual direction are experiencing sleep deprivation due to one item. Their phone. (Many adults, too, but that’s for another post.)

§  Caregivers, if you implement one thing from this post, please do this. Insists and require that your children leave their phones outside of the their rooms at night. Set the example, by leaving yours outside of your room as well. There is a startling amount of depression in teens due to sleep depravation and being constantly connected to the outside world.

Use your authority to create a safe restorative environment.

The last tip Dr. Vishton provides is one of grace. Life is a living and moving organism. Go with it. There are times when the bedtime routines need to be put on pause. The fireworks on the 4th of July don’t adhere to bedtime, neither does Easter Vigil, but both are wonderful celebrations and shouldn’t be missed.  

We are learning together, Мама и папа, Gans and Gampy, Aunts and Uncles, Friends and Teachers.

[1] If you are just now tuning into this blog series, it is a conversation with the Great Courses series, Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive by Peter M. Vishton.